Reunion of Birtle Residential School survivors focuses on healing, friendship, resilience

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

A historic reunion Thursday saw survivors of the former Birtle Residential School come together to share stories of pain, resilience and friendship.

Donna Green, 80, who was among the survivors from the southwestern Manitoba residential school, says the former students want to celebrate keeping their First Nations identities. She praised students’ love and respect in helping keep each other strong in the face of the systemic oppression of residential schools.

“It’s a great place to be with a great bunch of people. There is strong, resilient people,” Green said.

She was the first speaker as more than 100 people gathered at the Birtle Riverside Golf Course for the first-ever reunion of survivors of the school.

A man stands wearing a ribbon shirt.
Percy Ballantyne says the Birtle Residential School gathering was a chance for people to heal and reconnect. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Co-organizer Percy Ballantyne said the reunion offered healing, friendship and a reminder that survivors are not alone in their healing journeys.

“I wanted to see the other people that I haven’t seen for a very, very long time,” Ballantyne said. “The impacts of … the residential schools, it does not differ. We have everything in common.”

Ballantyne was sent to the Birtle school when he was 13. He still remembers sitting and watching hockey with his friends, a reprieve from punishments like cleaning steps with a toothbrush or mopping out the barn.

The federally funded school opened as a day school at first and became a boarding school in 1888, run by the Presbyterian Church, and later the United Church. More than 7,000 children from grades 1 to 12 were forced to attend the school before it closed in 1970.

Enduring love

Fred Prince and Carol Prince (formerly Linklater) are celebrating their 58th anniversary in November. While the two officially met at a Friendship Centre talent show, both are survivors of the Birtle Residential School.

Fred, now 88, was well known because “all the girls used to chase him,” said Carol, 81, with a laugh.

Fred wasn’t even five years old when he was taken from Peguis First Nation to the Brandon Residential School, he said. He would later spend five years in Birtle when he was a teenager.

An elderly couple stands holding hands.
Fred and Carol Prince were both forced to attend the Birtle Residential School. They’re celebrating their 58th anniversary this year. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

At first, he was excited because the Brandon school gave him fancy overalls, but he soon learned what the school was really like.

“It was hell for me and the other little guys,” Fred said. The older boys at the Brandon school were cruel to the younger ones, stealing food and at times sexually assaulting them.

The older girls used to look after the younger boys at the Brandon school, he said. Carol’s mother was one of the girls who watched over him.

Moving to Birtle was a relief compared to the Brandon school, he said.

Carol, who hails from Nelson House, came to Birtle when she was around 13 years old. 

She was there for five years, making lifetime friends that felt like little families — a welcome comfort when she was pulled away from her own family.

Seeing other survivors at Thursday’s reunion was good, said Fred, because it helps with healing.

‘We came back’

Green said the discrimination at residential schools was part of a drive to “de-Indianize” children, taking them away from their families, homes and friends and “hoping that we would go away.”

But it didn’t work, because the children formed their own families, sharing experiences and maintaining their Indigenous languages.

“We were who we were … although we kind of went through a period of time where we all questioned whether we were supposed to be who we were,” said Green, who was sent to the Birtle school in Grade 9, after she was previously at a day school in Berens River.

“We came back.”

A woman sits wearing a ribbon skirt.
Donna Green says students were resilient and resisted efforts to ‘de-Indianize’ them. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

During the reunion, Green called on members from different First Nations to raise their hands to showcase the range of cultures that survived the residential school, and welcomed them in different languages she learned from friends while attending the school.

Re-establishing those connections was emotional and touching, she said, adding there’s an impetus to see everyone because there are fewer survivors every year.

Ballantyne also referred to the efforts of residential schools to erase Indigenous people in Canada, calling the system a failed ethnic cleansing that turned into a genocide.

But the students and their cultures survived. He is still a fluent Cree speaker and knows other languages he learned from fellow students.

“You cannot take a language out of our culture,” Ballantyne said. “I chummed around the Anishinaabe or the Ojibway and the Oji-Crees.… We spoke our own languages, so I come away enriched with that culture.”

He says the plan is to have a reunion for students every year. 

He brought his family to Thursday’s reunion, including three of his grandkids. He wanted them to see the resilience of residential school survivors, and said it’s important they know the legacy of residential schools.

“This is just the beginning,” he said. “We’ve turned a new page. We’re going to pass on … the legacy story to them.”

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.